BY CARLI TEPROFF
Donning traditional denim dresses and scarves to cover their hair, seven young girls cradled their arms, stomped their feet and proudly welcomed the harvest.
Their joyous dance was a way to connect with their Haitian roots and to thank a woman they say has fought hard to give them the freedom to be in the United States — Cheryl Little.
“She fights for the Haitian people,” said 8-year-old Derby Bien-Aime, one of the children who participates in FANM, an after school program in Miami where the dance group formed.
The dance was part of the entertainment Friday at the ninth annual Champions for Children Award Ceremony held by The Children’s Trust, approved by Miami-Dade voters in 2002 as a funding source for children’s programs across Miami-Dade.
Little, who has spent nearly three decades battling for the rights of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors, was recognized as the David Lawrence Jr. Champion for Children. The yearly award, named after David Lawrence Jr., the founding board chair of the trust, a nationally known early-childhood education advocate and former publisher of the Miami Herald, recognizes people in the community who have dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of children.
“It is such an honor to receive an award in Dave Lawrence’s name,” said Little. “He is a champion of not just children but every good cause you could think of.”
Lawrence said he couldn’t think of a better person to recognize than someone who has fought tirelessly to give young immigrants a voice. Recognition, he added, is important.
“When you recognize people you encourage other people to do good things,” he said.
Little, the executive director and co-founder of Americans for Immigrant Justice, began her advocacy in 1985 when she worked for the Haitian Refugee Center. At the time, her report Haitian Children Awaiting Visas: A Plea for Help helped nearly 200 children reunite with their families. Her efforts were highlighted in a video that included several teens she helped.
“She’s like my guardian angel,” said Shamir Ali, who was facing deportation to his native Bangladesh.
Marleine Bastien, the executive director of FANM — which is funded by the Children’s Trust — said the dance was special because it is about the harvest, where you reap the benefits of what sow.
She said Little has sowed love around the entire community.
“We have reaped the benefits of her love,” she said. “We owe her a debt of gratitude.”
Little was one of several individuals and groups recognized at the awards event at Jungle Island in Miami that drew about 650 people.
State Representative Erik Fresen, who was first elected to the Florida House in 2008, received the Excellence in Public Policy award for his work in restoring $5 million in early learning funding that had been cut the previous year. Fresen, who has lobbied for funding for Miami-Dade College, has also served as vice chair of the Pre K-12 policy committee.
Fresen called the award “humbling.”
“The Children’s Trust is such an important part our community,” he said. “It’s all about the children.”
Other award recipients included:
• Mimi Schultz, who for more than three decades worked as an arts educator. She received the Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families. Shultz, the former artistic director of Fantasy Theatre Factory, used her creativity to touch more than two million students in Miami-Dade County.
• Family Central Positive Behavior Support Program, a program that targets childcare centers in low-income areas to help provide better care for infants and young children, which received the Excellence in School Readiness Programming.
• Jewish Community Services of South Florida, one of the largest social-service agencies in the state, which received the award for Excellence in Youth Programming. JCS’ Youth Aide Mentoring Initiative offers a mentoring program for teen girls and their families.
• The ConnectFamilias Service Partnership, which worked with 30 community programs in the Little Havana area to coordinate services. It received the Excellence in Health, Family or Community Services award.